I’ve been privileged to lead several small groups at church over the past couple years and also coach small group leaders. I’ve also been a part of some interesting discussions with friends who are responsible for setting up small group programs at their churches. Small groups are crucial, because that is a key place where community happens for so many church members.
So I wanted to include a list of small group best practices I’ve picked up since I got started. Feel free to use any or all of them, or to add your own.
This is where everything ought to start. Pray for your group and pray for your own leadership effectiveness. Start praying as soon as you know you will be leading a small group – or before that to know if you should lead one. I’ve included a list of prayers that we prayed for one of our small groups here.
Realize you are in an anointed position.
As a small group leader, you represent the church’s frontline leadership in discipling the members of the church. That’s an awesome responsibility! Take it to heart. Some people literally come back to church and into a growing relationship with God because of their small group (which wouldn’t exist without someone to lead it).
Don’t go it alone – recruit a co-leader.
I have gaps. You have gaps. We all have gaps. Get a co-leader to help you fill the gaps. Plus, it’s so much easier when you can share responsibility, trust me! Most of the time you will have to take the initiative to ask someone to join you. Pick someone you enjoy spending time with and talk about different roles you can both take on. For instance, one of you be primarily responsible for outlining an agenda and facilitating the discussion and the other be primarily responsible for ice-breakers or relationship-building aspects.
Set positive expectations upfront.
Start the group by talking about your vision for the experience. Tell everyone where you will all be going over the course of the next couple months. Tell them some of the things you’ve been praying for them and how you as leaders plan to serve them. (You can also look at this list to see the expectations my co-leader and I put together for one of our small groups as an example).
Understand that people join small groups for many different reasons; try to accommodate them.
I usually tend to choose small groups based on topic. But other people choose small group to make new friends and might not care about the topic as much. And of course weekday, time of day, and location are other decision-making criteria. You can’t always please everyone, but it does help to realize that people who come to your group may be there for reasons other than the ones that appeal the strongest to you.
Have a basic structure.
Notice I said basic. That’s somewhere in between having rigid agenda and completely winging it. Both extreme ends of the spectrum can make people uncomfortable. Be true to your topic but leave some margin for open-ended discussion.
Group first, self last.
Being a small group leader means you signed up to serve your group members, not to have them serve you. Instead of digging into a discussion you feel could present a breakthrough for you, invite your members to go deep on their own terms. Whatever you do, don’t use them to feed yourself! Go deeper with your co-leader afterwards if you need to. The most important thing is what God wants to do inside each person – and your group is just the conduit.
Don’t teach; facilitate.
Your group already has a pastor and it isn’t you! Think of your leadership role as one of creating an environment where spiritual breakthroughs can happen together. Many times, people experience a breakthrough as a result of something they say, not something that is said to them. When I’m leading a discussion, I try to be very cognizant of the amount of time I talk. My goal is to get the conversation started and then try to minimize my airtime and let others do most of the talking.
Give everyone a chance to participate.
Part of facilitation means making sure I don’t talk too much. It also means making sure others don’t talk too much, and that conversations stay reasonably on course. It is a shame whenever anyone doesn’t get the chance to participate. If your group is large, experiment with breaking discussions down further into 4-6 person circles and then finishing up as a larger group.
Stick to time boundaries.
Respect people’s schedules and don’t go overtime! Giving the Holy Spirit “room to work” shouldn’t be an excuse for poor leadership discipline. There’s a reason your church service doesn’t run for three hours on Sundays. (Does it??)
Recruit new leaders.
This is one of my favorite things to talk about and it’s critical, especially if your group is large or your church is growing (which I hope are the case). If your group is full, it means people enjoy coming to small group > which means there are likely others who are interested in small groups as well > which means there need to be small groups for them to attend > which means there need to be leaders to lead those small groups. Give this spiel early and often! Encourage your members to think and pray about whether they would want to lead – or help lead – a small group in the future. Tell them who they need to talk to or what they would need to do to sign up. Brainstorm ideas with them. You might even do an ice-breaker asking folks what type of small group they would lead if they were to lead a small group (wink, wink!). Most importantly, if you think any of the members would make great leaders, tell them personally. You may even ask them to co-lead a group with you in the future. And look for ways to give potential leaders extra ways to participate, such as leading a discussion or prayer time here or there.
Facilitate friendships and let the group know about other fun activities that are going on outside of group times.
This is huge for group members who are new to your church, new to the community, or who join small group primarily for the social aspect. If you are going to see a movie on Friday night, invite your small group to join you. If they are going to attending an event, encourage them to invite the rest of the group as well. I know from personal experience what a great blessings it is to join a small group and come away with some solid friends. It doesn’t happen all the time, but with a little initiative, you can help make this possible for others.
Sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do is have fun. (Tweet)
Sometimes it’s necessary to take a break and just have a good time on group night. I remember one small group in particular where we needed to stretch the material, so a few weeks in we held a “bonus night” with BBQ and games. Since no one knew each other yet, everyone got the chance to eat, talk, and have fun. It was a turning point since everyone felt ten times more at home with each other and dug in much more deeply the rest of the way.
Finish where you started, drenched in prayer. Pray for the real-life situations your group members are going through. Pray for the other small groups and their leaders. Thank God for what He is doing and don’t be surprised when He answers your bold prayers. Anticipate it! After all, it’s really His small group.
What best practices are missing? Please include yours in the comments below!
Nathan Magnuson is a leadership consultant, coach, speaker, and thought leader. To learn more about his services, visit NathanMagnuson.com/consulting or follow him on Twitter.
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